Published on July 1, 2012
By Thomas Van Hare
Though little known, today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of naval aviation.
On this date in aviation history, the world’s first naval aircraft carrier (of sorts) sailed into battle. The ship wasn’t an aircraft carrier by modern standards, but it was capable of launching a balloon tethered to its deck to reconnoiter enemy positions along the James River during the U.S. Civil War. While most would instantly assume that it was the Union that created the innovation of a balloon ship, the design was from the Confederacy States Navy.
In 1862, the Civil War pitted the North (or Union) and its industrial might against the South (the Confederacy). The latter sought succession on the grounds of preserving states’ rights. Although the battles of the Civil War would kill more Americans than any other conflict in the history of the United States, the conflict also proved a major driver of technological innovation on both sides. During the period of 1861 to 1865, the first ironclads were created (the precursors of the modern battleship), the first successful naval submarine was employed in combat (CSS Hunley), and the first balloon reconnaissance ship was launched.
Most modern balloon historians recount the balloon flights of the Union forces under Thaddeus Lowe. However, few know anything at all about the Confederacy’s own use of balloons during the conflict. It is all the more surprising that the Confederacy that gave birth to naval aviation with the launch of CSS Teaser, the Confederacy’s first and only aviation vessel.
Originally laid down in the yards at Philadelphia, the Teaser was purchased by the Commonwealth of Virginia and brought to Richmond in 1861. Soon afterward, the Civil War broke out. The ship was pressed into service as CSS Teaser. It then embarked on a short, illustrious career for the Confederate Navy. Among other missions, CSS Teaser pioneered mine laying in the waters of Union harbors and seaways. Also, in the Spring of 1862 CSS Teaser served as the tender ship to CSS Virginia at the famous Battle of Hampton Roads.
CSS Teaser was then placed under the command of Lieutenant Hunter Davidson, a DC-born, Virginia-bred gentleman who was an 1847 graduate of the US Naval Academy. Lt. Davidson had taken leave of the US Navy in 1861 to join the Confederacy. He served as an officer on CSS Virginia during its short career in combat including in its famous battle against USS Monitor. As it happened, CSS Teaser would be his first command.
CSS Teaser’s Special Mission
In Lt. Davidson’s competent hands, CSS Teaser was ordered to undertake a new and special mission. It was to carry and launch a coal-gas silk observation balloon to reconnoiter the Union Army’s positions along the James River in Virginia. To accomplish its mission, on July 1, 1862, the ship reeled its tethered balloon up to altitude. The balloon line was attached to a winch affixed to its deck. From the basket under the balloon, Confederate observers were to log the positions of the Union Army as they sailed up the river.
However, CSS Teaser’s mission as an “aircraft carrier” proved to be short-lived. Soon after a successful air mission on July 1st, the Union Navy dispatched ships to counter CSS Teaser and other Confederate vessels in the James River. At dawn on July 4, 1862, CSS Teaser was preparing a second balloon reconnaissance mission to map Union positions at City Point and at Harrison’s Landing when the Union ships arrived. A fierce gun battle ensued at Haxall’s on the James River.
After trading fire for a short time, USS Maratanza’s cannons scored a direct hit on CSS Teaser’s boiler, which exploded and left CSS Teaser dead in the water. The position of the ship was hopeless. The crew were ordered to abandon her and swim to safety. Seizing the disabled vessel as a war prize, USS Maratanza towed her to port. On board CSS Teaser they found the Confederacy’s one and only naval balloon stowed in a locker below decks.
The End of Naval Aviation in the Civil War
The story of CSS Teaser didn’t end there. The Union repaired CSS Teaser’s boiler and recommissioned the ship as USS Teaser. She was then pressed into service in anti-smuggling duties along the waterways of Virginia and for reconnaissance work — though without the balloon. At the end of the war, the ship was decommissioned from the Union Navy and sold into private hands. It continued in commercial operation until 1878, after which it was apparently scrapped.
Ultimately, the July 1 balloon operation of CSS Teaser proved to be the only use of a balloon by the Confederate States Navy, or for that matter, on either side of the conflict. Thus, today marks the 150th anniversary of an unlikely and often forgotten beginning for naval aviation.
It is fitting that we should remember that those four days in 1862 when the world witnessed the first and only “aircraft carrier” that sailed during the Civil War. As for Lt. Davidson, the world’s first commander of an aircraft carrier, he would go on to command several other ships before ending the war as Commanding Officer of the blockade runner City of Richmond.
After the Surrender at Appomattox, Davidson quit the United States and moved to Paraguay. He had no desire to experience Union rule and the so-called “Reconstruction” that followed. He died there on February 16, 1913, at the age of 86.
One More Bit of Aviation Trivia
Only one piece of CSS Teaser remains today, the cannon that was once fitted at the vessel’s bow. This piece of naval history is on display at the Navy Museum at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, DC, though most Capitol Region naval buffs don’t know of its existence. As for CSS Teaser’s balloon, its location and final disposition are unknown. Thus, the first aircraft to be launched from a ship is lost to history.